I work with teenagers who are having difficulties, I have done so for almost 30 years, and I have written previously about the propensity of some parents to fail to set limits on their children. I know this is not only my opinion, I have heard it voiced many times by peers in my field. Or as a sixth grade teacher friend once told me, "Just go to any mall, sit down on a bench in an open area, and observe. I guarantee you'll see example after example of poor parenting, with the kids running the show and the parents checked out."
While I haven't tried the mall experiment yet, I did happen upon an example of this recently while at the gym. I was on the treadmill, it was 7 a.m., and of the 10 televisions playing in front of me, the only show that looked half-way interesting was one on MTV called "Parental Control." I have to admit I am not a fan of MTV, in fact with shows like "Jersey Shore," "Skins" and "The Real World" on its roster, I consider MTV to have pumped more toxicity into the environment than BP and Exxon combined.
I plugged in my headphones anyway and listened in, and apparently what happens on this reality show is that there is a teenager who is dating someone who his/her parents do not like. MTV producers then haul in a handful of prospective alternate mates, the parents pick the two they like the best, their child goes on a date (televised of course) with each, and then the big question at the end is if the child will ditch his/her current partner for one of the new ones.
In this particular episode, there was a girl who I believe was age 16, and her parents couldn't stand her current boyfriend. I couldn't blame them; when he was introduced, it was clear he was a complete self-centered fool. At the start of the show, the girl's father was asked, "Why don't you like your daughter's boyfriend?" He answered, "Well, for one thing, he constantly breaks my rule about not sleeping over in our house." The girl's mother then interjected, "Yes, it is so embarrassing to be here in the kitchen in the morning, in my pajamas and bathrobe, my hair all a mess, and he sees me like that." And of course the footage that followed was of the daughter and her boyfriend lying in her bed, with the latter stating on-camera, "Hey, what guy doesn't want to sleep with his girlfriend in her bed, it's the greatest!"
When I saw all this, I practically jumped off of the treadmill and screamed. I didn't, I managed to contain myself, but I was furious not only at the brainless boyfriend, but at the weak-willed parents. They just stood there on screen wringing their hands, as if they were completely helpless to do anything about this, with either their daughter or her boyfriend.
Perhaps this is an extreme example (perhaps it is not) but I see this kind of thing not infrequently. Parents draw a line in the sand, the child steps over the line, so the parents draw a new line, and it goes on and on from there. I frankly don't know where this kind of parenting came from. I sometimes wonder if it's the pendulum swinging in the other direction, from a parenting style a generation ago that over-emphasized rules and obedience.
Twenty years ago a supervisor gave me a quote from Elizabeth Sturz, founder and president of the Argus Community program in New York City. I have distributed it to staff wherever I have worked during the ensuing decades, and I keep a faded and greatly-xeroxed copy of it tacked to my office wall to this day. It reads:
The consensus among experts is that serious disturbances in growth and development occur when children are deprived of discipline and the assurance that their behavior matters and has consequences; that today's youngsters -- of whatever class or caste -- are not getting the message that strong, consistent, benevolent adults are in charge at home, in schools or institutions. All too often, families shattered by poverty or paralyzed by uncertainty and cynicism fail to project the image of right and wrong. Adrift in morale anomie, adolescents, and even young children, fall prey to hedonism, detachment, under-achievement and drugs. The helping professions seem stuck in an era when the challenge was to free people from over strict consciences, while today's task is to provide children with coherent environments and limits, with adults firmly at the helm. Many children are not given the wherewithal to develop a mature personality, let alone a conscience. Until we comprehend this, we will not sort out or deal with the psychopathy that is a prominent feature in homes, schools and streets, not to mention business and politics.
I could not agree more.